Popular Users
updated text from essay of the same title featured in isthisis #4, 2018

While the digital has made dramatic changes to our day-to-day lives, the view of ‘popular culture’ seems to continue the bombastic spectacle of the pre-digital, iconically referenced in Pop Art of the 1950s and 60s. Lawrence Alloway, an advocate of the movement, discussed that ‘[t]he consumption of popular culture is basically a social experience, providing information derived from and contributing to our statistically normal roles in society.’ This is from the catalogue for American Pop Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, in which he adds ‘[t]here is a subtle and pervasive, but only half-described, feedback from the public to the mass media and back to the public in its role as audience.’ In the half century since the period Alloway is discussing, this ‘role’ of the public has shifted from ‘audience’ to ‘user’ as our digital devices enable us to produce content without the prerequisite of physical materials or basic technical skills. This has intensified the ‘subtle and pervasive’ feedback between mass media and public, where the public not only consumes popular culture, they produce it.

Much of popular culture is now user-generated. A precursor to this can be seen in 90’s television shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos and You’ve Been Framed, in which audiences would send in questionably comedic events they had ‘caught on camera’, broadcast to canned laughter (such as my own appearance as a teen). Rather than user-generated, this kind of programming developed the perception of audience-generated content, which although restricted to the camcorder enthusiast, was relatable to the collective ‘audience at home’ through amateur production values. This went on to influence the production and reception of movies such as The Blair Witch Project, 1999, where amateur production became a cinematic device. Around this same time a broader interaction of the audience as contributor was taken up by realityTV shows such as Big Brother, which allowed telephone users to impact the development of the shows via a phone-in voting system, which although limited in scope, continues in popular shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor. Here the audience is arguably, and ubiquitously, a user of both a television and a telephone.

A major development for the audience as user came in the early-mid 00’s with sites such as Myspace and Facebook allowing the public to produce and distribute their own content at will. This was followed in 2005 by YouTube alongside video capable bandwidths. By 2010 the concept of generating and viewing user-content had been normalised, incentivising the means of production and distribution, and the commercial potential of enabling the user, most notably through the smartphone. Today the smartphone is a recognised social tool of a capital driven society, though one that has much wider reaching social values. As a ubiquitous tool of the people smartphones are used in cases of police brutality and social uprising, and it is now not unusual for those living in poverty to own a smartphone — though this remains an issue for welfare critics who continue to deem them as a sign of wealth. Within a society of users there is an internal (re)cycling of content in the form of text and images, both still and sequential, and capitally and socially driven. What this means for popular culture is that the ‘statistically normal roles in society’ are no longer the receptive audience, but the active user, intensifying their pervasive feedback. 

In a society of users of tools, public production becomes popular content. Where traditionally an image of a popular product or celebrity was seen as pop culture, today it is the production of an enabled user to generate their own content. This is exampled in Apple’s ‘Shot On’ campaign, which features huge billboards pasted with generic yet seemingly high production images with the tag line ‘shot on iPhone, by [ambiguous forename and initial]’. The ads present a quandary, as the image appears professional while it is put into the context of the amateur as user-generated. This simple yet effective campaign does not show the image of the product as its cultural signifier, but the product of the product, and the alluded enabling of the audience-as-user. This shifts the position of popular culture from being ‘a network of messages and objects that we share with others’, to a cultural awareness to the use of social tools ‘that we share with others’, the smartphone being the most dominant. 

Smartphones have not simply made writing, photography and video more available, they have made them easier to produce and distribute. These media have been accessible for some time, what has changed is the skill set required to use them. Pre-digital users of these apparatuses all required some skill in the operation, production, and/or distribution of their product. A pen or typewriter doesn’t autocorrect spelling mistakes and grammar; a roll of film doesn’t focus, expose and develop itself; and a video tape cannot reedit its own content into a best bits ‘memories’ montage. A smartphone can do all of this, and much, much more, as the labour of the human is exchanged for the decision-making abilities of the thinking machine, through the seemingly immaterial nature of the digital. 

The accessibility of the smartphone and subsequent ability of its user is made possible by this automation of labour, and as such the smartphone has become the most automated device the user has access to; it is arguably the most automated device on the planet. As a result, the content of the user is as much that of the machine’s as it is of the human, as without the aid of the machine, not only mechanistically but as a thoughtful presence, the content would not take the form that it does, if exist at all. This presence of the machine was discussed by VilĂ©m Flusser in terms of ‘quanta’ — a view I have adopted; and more recently speculated by theorists such as Luciana Parisi as ‘soft thought’. This is more broadly (and simplistically for this short text) an understanding of the digital machine as an object capable of thinking, though one that differs to human consciousness. I differentiate these as conscious (human) and computational (machine) quanta (decision-making), to which the smartphone user is engaged in a quantum dialogue within a dichotomy of themselves as a thinking being and the apparatus as a thinking object. 

User-generated-content requires the aid of the thinking machine, and as the user has become the producer of popular content, this can be defined as content that is mitigated by the quantum abilities of popular tools i.e. smartphones and social media. If the user were to endure the physical and quantum labour involved in the production and distribution of the content produced by users, it would be impossible for it to reach the scale it is today, and thus the encompassing ‘public’ would relinquish the role of ‘user’, and thus user-generated-content would loose its popular status. With this, it is arguable that signs of the quantum machine produced by popular devices have become signifiers of popular content in a society of users, to which nuances of text and image syntax has formed a new context for what is ‘popular’, one in which the user as audience is aware of the quantum dialogue in the production of content through firsthand experience of the equivalent popular device — one we have seen already in the quasi purity of #nofilter. Contrary to this, using systems which hide or mystify the aid of the machine create a barrier for the user as viewer, voiding their popular connotations. 

To write down these signs of the user as a list or manifesto is a reductive task, and one that would become instantly out-of-date with the constant development of quantum dialogues. These changes at a technological level are driven by capital rather than social values, and as such computational abilities are favoured over conscious aids in terms of progress. Human aspects focus on overpowering the machine rather than collaborating with it. This is exaggerated in glitch fetishism, though as Parisi states ‘celebrating error for its own sake is a form of mystification that can only lead to depoliticized, naive triumphalism’ (Parisi, 2016). A more progressive approach is an acceptance of the human in dialogue with the machine through an awareness to the aid of computational labour and conscious creativity, made possible through the intrigue of the audience as a practitioner. The result is a popular image very different to the traditional symbolism and iconifying of popular culture, where the instant stimuli of the recognisable is exchanged for the contemplative mundanity of the familiar. 

The images accompanying this text are an example of my enabled impetus as a user. Over the past few years I have taken these images studying a small palm in my room. Found in my phone’s image archive, I don’t know why I shot them, or kept them, only that I had an urge to, an impetus to produce from, rather than ponder over and experience the event itself. On reviewing them I find the labour of the machine to be their most interesting characteristic, in an awareness that every point of the image is not a reading from the subject as light, but an interpretation of a reading, which has been altered by the machine to suit its own quantum desires of programmed accuracy, one in which causality becomes a computed choice; choices that have become familiar through the nuances of their repetition. Sitting alongside this, online, is a more definitive programme of works from Amy Dickson, who has been producing videos using her smartphone that highlight the quantum dialogue in ways that are subtle, elegant, poetic and contemplative. This is available here: bit.ly/2EE9TfR and features an additional short text outlining the works.